There was a game against Arsenal in September 2012, early in the first season back in the Premier League for Southampton, that stands out in Adam Lallana’s memory as an example of how things were in the days before his game and his philosophy on football were transformed.
He makes it clear, as we sit together on a sunny afternoon at Melwood, that he means it as no slight on his former manager Nigel Adkins, who was in charge that day Southampton were beaten 6-1 at the Emirates. It was the kind of result that can befall newly-promoted teams when they come up against the established powers, although at the time Lallana was yet to learn there was another way.
“It was the longest game of my life. We sat back and whenever we did win the ball we were miles from their goal. Then the following March under [Mauricio] Pochettino we played Liverpool and we won. We went man-for-man at goal-kicks and pressed them high and we were winning the ball back in our attacking third which meant that for players like me we were closer to the goal. That meant more chances.
“It also meant you had to work harder and faster to win the ball back rather than sitting back as we had at the Emirates. Speaking selfishly, having to counter-attack is not one of my strengths. That opened my eyes to being brave, being fit and having 11 people willing to work as one.”
It is almost exactly four years since Southampton won that game against Liverpool 3-1, and Lallana finds himself in his third season at Anfield playing under Jürgen Klopp at the vanguard of a revolution similar to the one Pochettino led at Southampton and now Tottenham. If there is one footballer who embodies the Klopp style it is Lallana, the firefly midfielder – goalscorer, goal assister, winner of possession, leader of the high press.
His career started as a slow-burn, through those years in the Football League with Southampton, but two months before he turns 29 he is reaping the rewards for building firm foundations. He is the England team’s player of the year, and arguably the highest performing English player in the Premier League this season. He is also potentially a contender for what now seems to be a vacant captaincy with England.
Looking back he says he never expected to reach this level, a teenager of whom big things were hoped but never expected – “I stood out,” he says, “but I wouldn’t say I had the X-factor”. As a senior professional he has very firm ideas about what it takes to be a leading player in the modern game and those have been shaped by Pochettino and now Klopp.
“He [Pochettino] brought a different element to the way the teams worked,” Lallana says. “He brought the enthusiasm to want to work hard and he made working hard enjoyable. He didn’t want you to be just technically gifted. His demand was you work hard and if you are technically gifted on top, then great.
“You had to run, and be fitter than the other team. But also to run when you had no chance to win the ball back in order that the team would win it back when the opposition made the next pass. You had to sacrifice yourself for the team. That was his moral view. It is very similar under the boss [Klopp] here now. He wants his players to sacrifice themselves for the team.
“That sends a great message throughout the team and a great feeling. You can’t just switch it on and off. When the manager comes in he cannot say, ‘This is something I want to do’. It is an environment that the manager creates and it happens over time. We definitely had it at Southampton, I can see that Tottenham have it now and that we have it here at Liverpool.”
This is a point that is fundamental to Lallana’s game and he talks about it with the zeal of the convert. He also sees it in the Manchester City team Liverpool will face tomorrow, especially in David Silva – “one of the most technically gifted players in the Premier League running and tackling” – and he recognises that this is now a basic requirement of the best players in the league.
“I feel now that a tackle or an interception high up the pitch is as nice a feeling as creating a goal for someone else,” he says. “Football has moved on in the last three or four years, in the way that teams do want to press high and win the ball back closer to the opponents’ goal. I think the demand has changed for every player to do that in the team. We don’t say anymore ‘OK, we have a player who is unbelievably technically gifted, he will score us 20 goals but he doesn’t have to work hard’. Everyone needs to put a shift in.”
When Liverpool beat City at Anfield on New Year’s Eve they moved into second place in the table but have dropped 15 points since then. Their form against the top six – unbeaten in nine, including five wins – contrasts with defeats by, among others, Burnley, Bournemouth, Swansea and Hull, and is a difficult phenomenon to explain. Lallana says that every team in the league have to be figured out and then beaten, and that is not always easy.
He takes the 2-1 victory over Burnley last Sunday as a case in point. “In the first half we played similar to them, lots of long balls, and we needed to adapt our game because they play all year like that and they are very good at doing it. Each team have their own tests. You have the top six but there is no gimme in this league as there might once have been.”
Lallana signed a contract last month that takes him to 2021, and he has a clear idea of what he wants. “I would love a bit of silverware with Liverpool, and something special with England. Missing out in that Europa League final last year, every time it comes up in conversations, I feel, ‘Ah so close to something’.” The trophy cabinet so far comprises just one Johnstone’s Paint Trophy with Southampton from 2010.
Lallana grew up in Bournemouth, where his parents, David and Sharon, ran a nursing home and, for a few years, while the family saved to buy a house of their own, they lived on the top floor. He has very happy memories of life running downstairs to visit the residents one floor below. He has two young sons of his own now and in his professional life feels the responsibilities of the senior player.
He recalls a game away to Hartlepool in League One in 2009 when the Southampton captain of the time, Paul Wotton, a mentor during Lallana’s early years, addressed the squad on the bus to tell them this was one away fixture that would “separate the men from the boys”. It was a test Lallana, then 21, passed with two goals in a 3-1 win but he has never forgotten it, nor his friendship with Wotton, and he wonders about the challenges that face the new generation now.
He notices that Liverpool’s young players have much greater maturity than he did as a 17-year-old apprentice, yet it would be right to say that it is his career that will be held up to them as an example of what is possible, “Did I ever think I would be here today achieving what I had achieved? No. Simply because seven years ago I was playing in League One and it was a dream to play in the Premier League, let alone for Liverpool or to represent my country as many times as I have.”
He was in the same 2005 Southampton FA Youth Cup final squad as Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott, both younger than Lallana, and both of whom made quicker progress than him. “The only thing that is guaranteed is disappointment and it is how you react to that,” he reflects. “How do you react to being left out and not playing? It is always the ones who get their head down, work hard and prove the manager wrong who succeed.”